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Atoms and Skis

Faculty Profile

The chemistry professor finished his first lecture and stood idly by puffing on a cigarette while an assistant explained the laboratory. "By the way," the professor interrupted in a faint foreign accent, "The University specifically forbids smoking in classrooms. But Gentlemen, I am very nearsighted. So nearsighted that I cannot even see my own cigarette."

Department colleagues say that George B. Kistiakowsky, Abbot and James Lawrence Professor of Chemistry, has a rare knack of putting people at ease. They are also quick to cite his readiness to cut red tape; or to voice an opinion on matters that displease him. Kistiakowsky has devoted most of his life to fighting those things that displease him: first the Bolsheviks, then the Nazis, and again the Communists.

Born in Kiev, Russia, he is a fourth generation college professor. Graduating from high school in 1918, he saw Russia inflamed by revolution, and promptly joined the White Army. "My political beliefs made it imperative," he says. But the White Army was almost wiped out in the two years of bitter fighting that followed. In 1920, those who were left sailed for Istanbul and exile. "It was a miniature Dunkirk."

Kistiakowsky went to Germany to study chemistry at the University of Berlin, and earned both bachelor and doctorate degrees in the space of only four years. "I worked hard," he says.

Feeling against foreigners was already strong in Germany in 1926, and Kistiakowsky, in the country on a student's visa, left for the US and a Rockefeller grant. He came to Harvard in 1930 and quickly moved up the academic ladder to a name chair and a stint as department chairman.

In 1940, when it became apparent that the Nazi advances in Europe were threatening this country, he asked President Conant for a leave of absence. Conant, then chairman of the Chemistry Division of the National Defense Research Committee, assigned him to research in explosives, a field in which he is now one of the world's foremost experts. In 1943, he was put in charge of the Explosives Division at Los Alamos, Kistiakowsy and his researchers developed the implosion device that triggered the world's first atomic explosion at Almagordo, and later the Nagasaki bomb.

Though most of his time is now spent in pure research, he continues to serve on government committees and to do active work in the development of atomic weapons. He feels that, so long as this country has decided to engaged in an arms race, we must maintain our superiority as the only means to prevent war. Kistiakowsky insists that all his military work be done away from Harvard, for he regards government entrance into private institutions a grave danger.

An athlete, Kistiakowsky serves on the Faculty Committee on Athletics, and is outspokenly in favor of strengthening Harvard football in every way short of outright commercialism. He debunks the faculty myth which says he once advocated the hiring of tackles. "It was backs," he says. He is a fine skier, but belittles his ability to the point of taking novice friends with him, then fooling them into accompanying him down the most frightening slopes. Other members of the Chemistry Department are wary of going with him, as his guests have an unusual propensity for breaking legs. Even his wife was unable to escape this jinx. One of his most prized possessions is a framed letter from Eliot Perkins, Master of Lowell House, in which Perkins takes full responsibility for breaking the leg of Reginald P. Linstead, famed English scientist who accompanied Kistiakowsky and Perkins on a skiing expedition about ten years ago.

Kistiakowsky is a hard man to beat in an argument. At a conference held here, he got into a heated debate with another distinguished American scientist. Kistiakowsky was furious. "I know for an absolute certainty that your theory is wrong," he said. "I'll bet my entire scientific reputation on it. I'll even go further than that:

'I'll bet you five dollars."

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